Charles Blow has a point.
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.
People often try to explain this away by saying that the people who enslaved Africans in this country were simply men and women of their age, abiding by the mores of the time.
But, that explanation falters. There were also men and women of the time who found slavery morally reprehensible. The enslavers ignored all this and used anti-black dehumanization to justify the holding of slaves and the profiting from slave labor.
While it’s true that different norms existed in different times, it’s hard, no impossible, to argue that there was any time when owning slaves wasn’t, per se, wrong. Just because you legally could didn’t mean it was acceptable. And you know who owned slaves?
Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.
To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”
You can’t fault his logic, as far as it goes. Slavery is reprehensible. Washington owned slaves. Washington was reprehensible. But are there other factors to be taken into account?
We’re at another one of those peculiar moments where we’ve become obsessed with race. It is, of course, something worthy of our most serious concern, but is it the only concern? For some, the answer is “abso-fricking-lutely!” Is that the end of the discussion?
Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.
Which history are we talking about, the 1619 version which predicates the existence of the United States on the perpetuation of slavery, the “whitewashed” history that largely ignored slavery in favor of the glorious revolution against taxation without representation, or whatever history exists in between?
Like it or not, George Washington, slave-owner, was the Father of our Country. Jefferson, slave-owner and rapist, was the Father of the
Constitution Declaration of Independence. Are they worthy of honor for the good they did, or best relegated to museums for the terminally awful? What becomes of America without them? What becomes of America, or the Constitution, if we lose our Founding Fathers to our recognition of their being amoral monsters?
Some would argue that we can manage both, to recognize their contributions while also recognizing their flaws. But if Blow is right, can owning slaves be trivialized as a mere flaw compared with the things they contributed otherwise?
At this moment in time, with heated, if not overheated, outrage over racism, there is a not insignificant group of Americans prepared to end our national adoration of our Founding Fathers, and our appreciation of what they did to form a new republic. What are we without our history, the ideals behind our founding? Do we put Washington’s statues into a museum? Do we change the name of the capital district, the state. And if Washington goes, surely the lesser figures of similar fault go with him.
Or do we accept the premise that our Founding Fathers, our first president included, engaged in a horrible wrong by owning slaves, and yet accept that his contributions to the creation of the United States of America are sufficiently critical to our existence to nonetheless put it aside and erect a statue in his honor? If race is our primary, our only, focus, this can’t be allowed, for as Blow argues, Washington’s ownership of slaves cannot be waived away.
Without Washington, Jefferson, our constitutional rights and our shared history, what is the United States about? Our national sense of existence might well be based on a lie, a willing ignorance of the role slavery played in our formation and maintenance, but was that all there was, all we are? Can we both honor these flawed fathers who gave us our national identity while condemning their heinous sin? Can we compare the founding of a nation, the winning of a revolution, the creation of a Constitution, with the ownership of human beings, and somehow arrive at an acceptable trade-off?
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